Credit: AP. Police officers strolling around downtown Istanbul, Turkey.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. The interviewee has chosen to remain anonymous for security concerns and can be situated as a NGO worker in Turkey. This interview was conducted by MobLab Collective member Ani Hao from Istanbul, Turkey after a campaigning fundamentals workshop. 

How are you doing?

Well, I’m working today. I was off yesterday.

Oh nice, what did you do yesterday? 

Well, I was actually detained. Pride is illegal in Ankara. But there was a Pride event around the corner from my office and I went.

I got detained only because I was filming police violence. So I was given a day off [after detention, from my workplace]. I could only film for 20 seconds. It’s not even worth all that government money! [laughs]

The biggest thing is that – when you go to an event like this and you get detained, it’s great that I don’t have to worry about being fired. That’s to begin with. I’m not discouraged to attend an event like this, so that’s the first [thing]. I work for an umbrella organization. What we discuss at work is how my right to protest is violated as an individual and not necessarily as a member of my organization.

Because we have some organizations that are involved in public events and some that are not. If I was vocal about the organization that I am working at, that would put my organization and our member organizations at risk. I am a paid staff member so we discuss things more strategically. Like on Tuesday, when I was detained, I just said that I’m a psychologist. If I was a volunteer, it’s a whole other issue, it could be a matter of advocacy.

So basically you’re discussing risk and security management even with your member organizations. 

Because we have some organizations that are involved in public events and we are not.

If I was detained as a member of my organization – I am a paid staff member, if I am a volunteer, it’s a whole other issue. Like on Tuesday, when I was detained, I just said that I’m a psychologist.

What’s the context now for public protests, mass organizing, etc?  

I’ll just set a general context. So in 2013, you have the Gëzi Park protests – some call it an uprising, others demonstrations. The street movements have been declining since then. Because of the response [from the government] and the violence – none of the officers were held accountable for the deaths [that occurred during the protests]. And then we had the military coup attempt. And then there was a reaction to it from the government and then a purge – a lot of people in universities and NGOs were sentenced. The risks are getting bigger and bigger. The opposition who were active on the streets – how do you call it – they withdrew. Already, it was hard for the progressive groups to come together, it’s harder to act together on the streets. Today, who we have three powerful street movements. People who take their cases to the streets are either Kurdish groups, women’s movements, LGBTQI+ movements, which are only highly suppressed. Only the women’s movements are powerful out on the streets [right now].

What do you mean by street movements? 

Demonstrations, taking it to the streets, doing press statements on the street – which we have less and less of since 2013. We began seeing more indoors events and closed communities because of the risks involved.

Taking it to the streets is a constitutional right. Before, you just had to notify the government. But now you need to get permission to do any activity, which is unconstitutional. People come up with different ways to overcome different barriers, though. It’s like a constant cat and mouse game. Thirty years ago, when they banned unnotified peaceful marches on the streets, people started to come together under press speeches because it was still okay without notifying the authorities because that was the loophole. The government found a way to address that too. Now they are not even allowing [doing press statements on the streets] without notifying the police. Because the environment is so hostile, it’s harder to get people together and motivate them.

Are you thinking differently about mass organizing after the workshop this weekend? 

Only one or two of our member organizations are involved in mass mobilizing. Probably none at all – or just one. Yeah, just one. It’s a foundation who was named after an activist who was killed during a police beating. It’s too risky to do mass mobilizing right now. What we can do – we can try to come up with models and find a compromise between rigid structures – like the demands of the public and young people. With regard to what we did in the workshop – you come up with an idea of a people powered organizing – this is an area that we are neglecting in terms of affecting policy change. But at least we know that we are neglecting this [strategy], and that in of itself is important.

We want to show our member organizations that you don’t have to take a political side – you don’t have to support a party to express a political opinion, it might be on a purely rights based approach. Usually policy advocacy – it’s mixed up with partisan work. We try to show our member and youth member orgs that it doesn’t have to be. Some of our partners or their member organizations are engaged in non-partisan mass mobilizing, people powered campaigning. We want to show our member orgs that yes this is indeed possible by creating opportunities for interaction between our European counterparts.

What I take away from your workshop is that I can show this model that you presented to our member organizations. Our work is very NGO focused and we tend to not think outside of NGO circles. But hey, if we look at things from a wider perspective, if we do a systems analysis, we can look at the other actors who are maybe neglected because it’s too risky, and we can include it in our analysis [and state that].

The more that we work with funding mechanisms, the more that we become self centered. So we have to go beyond that. It’s just a very familiar method and very narrow, just looking at NGO ecosystems. There are [also] self organized groups, grassroots groups, etc. The system mapping was really important. How can we turn this into mass organizing – the work that we do as NGOs takes years. Mass organizing can achieve what we do in a decade – it can happen in just a matter of days.

I always think about this – the spectrum of allies exercise that’s related to the systems mapping. Thinking about how to convert passive allies, about how to reach “neutral” or perhaps apolitical actors as well. And you’re right, what we do can take years, but it’s also important because some of this work is the background work for what sparks mass protests. 

One of the examples that I have – we work across different issues. The housing movement is a big issue in Turkey. The housing crisis. The rents have gone up – even before it became such a big issue, the student housing movement in Turkey responded to this crisis saying: it’s coming, it’s coming in September [22]. Regular people just started talking about the housing crisis like 3 months ago. Even the president couldn’t stay unresponsive to this.

You said your sister was detained in the housing movement protests? 

Both of us were detained. And it’s ridiculous – that day, we were just in the park.

Wow. In Hong Kong this has already become a tactic, to just walk around parks and streets near protest sites but pretend like you are not actively protesting. It really seems serious if they are detaining any person within a certain distance of a protest site. 

Did you hear about the pigeon protests in Belarus? [looking around for post-its]. They took post-its and kind of put them around a pencil and put them around a pen. Then they would give seeds to pigeons and then take photos of the pigeons with the pens, as if they were protesting. Pigeon protest.

You could really do it in Turkey! There are so many pigeons and cats here. [joking]

That’s something that we’d have to talk about with a lot of diverse groups. No, but really – this is why it’s really important to learn from other solidarity groups around the world. Because we really burn out. We get really exhausted. When you’re stuck in your context, it becomes more difficult to think about other scenarios. It’s really important to have that dialogue. It only is limited to a group of privileged people, like you and I. How can we multiply this conversation between us? Otherwise it just becomes self entertaining, intellectual talks. How we can multiply this is the question. That’s what we have to do.

Ani Hao

Ani Phoebe Hao is a freelance journalist, researcher and media consultant. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Teen Vogue, GenderIT, VICE, and Open Democracy.